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Class Notes

TRIBUTEDominick Argento ’58E (PhD):
argentoCLEAR COMPOSITIONS: As a teacher, Argento, who won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his opera From the Diary of Virgina Woolf, “stressed that opera was about relationships, not politics, current events, or some abstraction,” says a former composition student. (Photo: AP Images)
‘Addio’ to a Resonant Voice in Music

I first heard Dominick Argento’s music from the backstage of Eastman Theatre as a master’s degree student at the Eastman School. It was the “Apollo” fanfares from Dominick’s In Praise of Music, in a rehearsal conducted by David Zinman. Violins ascending solo, without harmonic support, into thin air at the end—the extraordinary and brave last movement of that work marked what would be a new age of song for me as a composer.

About 10 years later, I became Dominick’s composition student, and one of his last TAs in his 40-year teaching career at the University of Minnesota. When he died in February, we lost a master composer whose stature in late 20th-century opera and choral music has been recognized with a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award, and other accolades, but also—and more importantly—through the admiration of his peers, his students, and audiences throughout the world.

In studying music, you learn from the hand or the pen of another. Of course, it’s a little more concrete when you’re dealing with piano keys, cane, or breath control. But in every case, it’s a relationship founded in trust. Looking at a score, especially one fresh with erasures and coffee stains, you see the choices that person has just made, all spilled out onto a page, just because it’s 11 o’clock on Wednesday morning and it’s lesson time. Dominick was encouraging, but he was honest and direct; I appreciated both, even when his candor sent me back to the piano to hunt a different quarry.

Dominick’s example was as important to me as his words. It was wonderful to be able to talk about the old-fangled composers I loved, like Strauss, Mahler, and Elgar. But it was instructive to have glimpses into the molding of an opera like The Dream of Valentino or a cycle like A Few Words about Chekhov. I remember:

Beginnings and endings matter.

A good piece begins with a good idea. Find that kernel and allow it to flower in its own language.

Words have shaping power, and are worthy of respect and love.

Sometimes the greatest gift you can give the voice is a sustained tone that allows it simply to sound beautiful.

One of Dominick’s favorite Italian tempo indications is Brusco. He could be brusque, and he was famously funny, usually with a touch of balsamic. But he soberly stressed that opera had to be about relationships, not politics, current events, or some abstraction. Nowhere is this more personally expressed than in Evensong, Dominick’s last major work, dedicated to the memory of his dear wife, Carolyn. Among the final words—his words:

Love is not consolation. It is light.

It is a light acquired by patience and pain,

Doubt and understanding, sorrow and forgiveness.

Dominick’s work glows with warm strings, ringing percussion, and resonant brass. And it illuminates through human voices singing passionately about things that matter.

—David Evan Thomas ’83E (MM)

A Minneapolis-based composer, Thomas was a student of Samuel Adler and Robert Morris while at Eastman. His father, John Thomas, was a member of Eastman’s flute faculty and played in the 1957 premiere of Argento’s Ode to West Wind, with soprano Carolyn Bailey Argento and under the direction of Howard Hanson, Eastman’s director from 1924 to 1964.